Why Korea Needs The BBC World Service

A BBC Korean service would be an important step forward for the UK's involvement in Korean peninsula affairs
March 27th, 2013
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Since last month’s announcement of a proposal for the BBC to launch a Korean language radio service, the idea has drawn widespread approval. In February NK NEWS reported on the story after UK Members of Parliament tabled an Early Day Motion recommending World Service transmissions be extended to the Korean peninsula. Supporters have cited the potential for disseminating impartial news and information to North Korea. However, a Korean language service could also present a refreshing, alternative news source for South Koreans, while also being an important step in the UK expanding its involvement in the affairs of peninsula.

The UK is uniquely placed to exert influence that is not tarnished in the same way as Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, both with explicit connections to North Korea’s “enemy number one”,  the U.S. government. “The UK is not considered by North Korea as being as imperialistic as America and in fact the UK and North Korea enjoy a formal diplomatic relationship,” said Raphael Rashid, campaign manager for the ‘BBC for Korea’ Facebook group.

The UK is uniquely placed to exert influence that is not tarnished in the same way as Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, both with explicit connections to North Korea’s “enemy number one”,  the U.S. government. In an interview with Beyond Hallyu, the campaign group ‘BBC for Korea’ said, “The UK is not considered by North Korea as being as imperialistic as America and in fact the UK and North Korea enjoy a formal diplomatic relationship.”

The administrators of the independent Facebook group set up to publicize and garner support for the proposal also said, “We have discovered how much support there is among South Koreans for a different kind of media outlet.”

“Though many media operators exist in Korea, there is a perception that they endorse, rather than analyse, views that already conform to the ideological orientations of their bases,” a campaign manager said. Despite South Korea’s democratization over the last two decades bringing much greater freedom of the press, political polarization and policy bias continue among the major media outlets. Smaller, more independent media outlets often rely heavily on syndicated news, and foreign observers have commented on the relative dearth of rigorous investigative journalism in the South Korean media industry. As well as the appeal of the BBC as an independent source of news and cultural contents providing a welcome change from existing media outlets on the peninsula, no Korean media outlet serves the population of the two Koreas simultaneously.

North Korean defectors based in the UK have agreed that the service could play a vital role in the promotion of human rights in North Korea, as well as general information dissemination. Speaking in the Houses of Parliament at the February launch of a new report on the importance of Europe’s role in North Korea, one defector said, “Just the act of listening to foreign radio stations is a crime which will get you sent to a correctional facility, but finding listeners in North Korea won’t be a problem. I believe that providing the impetus for people to learn about the outside world is very important. It was shocking for me to learn about the world outside when I started listening to foreign radio, because we had only ever been exposed to the regime’s information.”

The defectors at the parliamentary meeting also cited the potential for North Korean defectors in London to establish their own projects for the BBC service, should it be implemented.

A BBC Korean language service could also represent an important step forward for the UK in its currently limited involvement in the affairs of the Korean peninsula, despite its diplomatic presence in Pyongyang. In January this year Members of the House of Lords debated the security, humanitarian and human rights situation in North Korea and called for a UN inquiry into crimes against humanity in the DPRK. Last week the UN published a resolution to establish this Commission of Inquiry, something the UK All Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea had long being campaigning for along with other concerned nations. Yet despite recent efforts on the part of the UK government to engage in Korea-related issues, the UK public remains woefully under-informed about the situation on the peninsula, limiting the ability of the government to muster public support for its campaign efforts.

The Koreas rarely make headline news in the British media. Followers of regular news would have at best a vague awareness of a bellicose dictatorship located somewhere between Japan and China, and perhaps know even less about South Korea. The Koreas may be distant geographically, but that should not rule out British interest in the affairs of the peninsula and promoting peace and democracy there. As the  ‘BBC for Korea’ campaign hopes, the introduction of a Korean language BBC service may serve a dual purpose in supplying information about Korean society and culture to a wider audience through an increase in BBC reporting on the peninsula, while also representing Britain to the public of both Koreas.

There are many obstacles to overcome before the service can be established, including issues of funding, sponsorship and location of the transmission site. In the meantime, ‘BBC for Korea’ says “We must attract support from both Britain and South Korea, particularly from the general public.” With the All Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea and a number of UK human rights NGOs campaigning for the proposal, hopefully it won’t be long before it becomes a reality.

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About the Author

Sarah A. Son

Sarah Son is an NK NEWS columnist and a PhD candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) where she specialises in inter-Korean affairs.

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